He added, "At no time during my tenure in Honduras did the embassy condone or conceal human rights violations. To the contrary, the embassy and the State Department cooperated with the government of Honduras to help remedy recognized deficiencies in the administration of justice."

Negroponte's arrival in Honduras coincided with the Reagan administration's decision to reduce the emphasis that the Carter administration had put on rights issues in dealings with allies.

The new policy had been made clear to Negroponte's predecessor, Ambassador Binns, a Carter appointee, after he repeatedly warned of human rights abuses by the Honduran military.

In a June 1981 cable obtained by The Sun, Binns reported:

"I am deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations of political and criminal targets, which clearly indicate [Government of Honduras] repression has built up a head of steam much faster than we had anticipated."

The reaction was swift and unexpected. Binns was summoned to Washington by Thomas O. Enders, the new assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

"I was told to stop human rights reporting except in back channel. The fear was that if it came into the State Department, it will leak," Binns recalled. "They wanted to keep assistance flowing. Increased violations by the Honduran military would prejudice that."

"Back channel" messages are unofficial or informal communications, often in code, sent outside the usual distribution system to restrict circulation of information.

Enders confirmed the 1981 meeting with Binns.

"I told him that whereas human rights violations had been the single most important focus of the previous administration's policy in Latin America, the Reagan administration had broader interests," Enders said. "It believed that the most effective way to overcome civil conflicts and human rights violations was to promote democratically elected governments and that should be his point of focus."

There was nothing rare or vague about the evidence of military abuses that confronted Negroponte from the time he took over as ambassador in November 1981.

In 1982, his first full year in Honduras, more than 300 articles in the local press included:

An account in February of the discovery of five bodies in a makeshift grave in Las Montanitas, 15 miles outside Tegucigalpa.
  • An account in April of the illegal arrest of six university students.
  • A story in September about union members marching through Tegucigalpa to demand the release of one of their leaders abducted a month earlier.
  • Another story in September about dozens of children protesting the disappearances outside the Honduran Congress as it considered forming a committee to investigate military abuses.

    "There is no way United States officials in Honduras during the early 1980s can deny they knew about the disappearances," said Jaime Rosenthal, a former vice president of Honduras and owner of the daily newspaper El Tiempo. "There were stories about it in our newspaper and most other newspapers almost every day."

    "[The United States] had an embassy staff here that was larger than most other embassies in Latin America," Rosenthal said. "If they say they did not know, that is bad, because it would mean they were incompetent."

    Evidence came from other sources.

    Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga, then a delegate in the Honduran Congress and a voice of dissent in the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation, said he spoke several times to Negroponte about the military's human rights abuses.